Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Scientific Process (feat. Vincent Van Gogh)

I've teamed up with a fellow LDT student, and we're heading towards the first draft of our proposal for a Master's project. I should say, rather, that our proposal is due tomorrow, and we're in the process of constructing something like a draft. Really, our problem is that we have more writing than we can possibly use to fill our 2,000 word limit, and we still haven't written everything we need to write. Such is proposal writing.

Anyway, I won't get into the project too much yet, since I'm sure I'll be sharing more about it as it gets more advanced, and because I want to leave room for a little suspense and imagination. Instead, I want to offer a few thoughts that are central to what we're doing: the scientific process. What, in short, really is the scientific process? How should it be taught? How is it used? What does it look like?

There is, of course, no systematic agreement about what the scientific process is and exactly which steps should be a part of it. Indeed, there is much debate about whether it should be called the "scientific method" or the "scientific process." I choose process because I think that fits better with my conception of how it operates, but "method" is more historical (Francis Bacon deemed his work on the matter a method). Nevertheless, there are generally five steps, through which the scientist is meant to proceed in order (methodically) in order to come to a better understanding of the external natural world. Those steps are as follows:

1) Observation
2) Question
3) Hypothesis
4) Experiment
5) Conclusion

Generally speaking, the scientific process is taught like this, as I said, with perhaps some linguistic modifications. It is not uncommon, of course, to call out the iterative nature of the scientific process - that is, that a conclusion might just qualify as a new observation - but there is general agreement that these steps in this order more or less make up the effort of science, and they are not accidentally a prominent feature in science standards and benchmarks across the country.

Do scientists really follow this process? That is not so clear. It certainly seems as though observations, questions, hypotheses, experiments, and conclusions are important parts of the act of doing science, but are they always used sequentially, in just that order? Reflecting on thought-process in general, it is not clear that we always begin with an observation; rather, we might start from a hypothesis or even an experiment. We might say that we are, nevertheless, making an unconscious observation to get there, but does that substantively change the process, or not?

More telling, however, is when we go from observation to question, back to observation. Or when we go from question to question. Or when we go from question straight to experiment without formulating a hypothesis. All of those things unquestionably do happen. Sometimes, before experimentation, we pass through a long series of observations, questions, and hypotheses. Sometimes, unfortunately, we jump straight from questions to conclusions, favoring action over information-gathering (especially when there's insufficient time to test).

That's all abstract, so here is an example. To keep this broad, I'll use a famous work of art rather than a physical and scientific phenomenon. By analyzing a piece of art, I also want to point out that the scientific process is a heuristic tool useful in more than just science:

Observation - I see houses in this painting.
Question - Why are the lines in the houses so much straighter than lines elsewhere.
(Unconscious) Hypothesis - It has something to do with the nature of houses.
Question - What else is in the painting?
Observation - I see a large green thing.
Question - What is that?
Hypothesis - Maybe it's a tree or a bush?
... (note that here I could do the "experiment" of looking up interpretations)
Question - OK, what else is in the painting?
Observation - There seem to be hills, and a highly stylized sky.
Observation - The lines in the hills are less wavy than those in the sky, but they are still soft and flowing.
Observation - The sky is quite swirly.
Observation - The painting's title, Starry Night, tells me that the yellow spots are starts, though somewhat abstracted.
Observation - The big "star" on the right is actually the moon!
Hypothesis - The moon is meant to imply the sun in this painting.
... (again we could "experiment" here, but I'm trying to stay on the path of my initial question)
Hypothesis - Van Gogh is painting natural things with more and more flowing lines than man-made things.
Observation - The church steeple is quite prominent.
Experiment - An analysis and interpretation of the painting suggests that Van Gogh painted this whilst desiring to reconnect with nature. He was in a psychiatric hospital, and was disconnected from the world literally as well as figuratively - a fact augmented by his recent decision to cut off his own ear, which landed him in the hospital to begin with.
Conclusion - The town in Starry Night is soft and forgiving, but remains less free than the natural aspects of the scenery. The steeple could signify a very human sense of hope, but could also be a menacing intrusion on a much more beautiful and interconnected natural world. It does not seem to me that Van Gogh is arguing anything - least of all a "return to nature," - but nevertheless he expresses a stirring (which seems just the right word) picture of the contrast between the form of nature and the forms constructed by man, all-the-while knowing that his painting expresses more than fulfills his desire to bridge those gaps.

A few things here. First off, I don't have the slightest clue whether this interpretation - my "conclusion" - is at all reasonable. I do know, however, that I arrived at it by following a certain process, which I have traced out above. Part of the reason for giving an example with a work of art, here, is to emphasize that scientific knowledge is not unlike the interpretation I've offered here. A scientific conclusion may be reasonable, but it is hard to claim with certainty that it is necessarily correct. Even expressing the actual, and more verbose, process of scientific thinking - as opposed to the 5-step formula we generally teach - there are steps that I've likely left out (I did go back and add a unconscious hypothesis, and could likely add more, but you get the idea).

At the very least, there are points of contention throughout the process I've laid out. Where did I observe, and where did I hypothesize? How many of those observations were genuinely observations, not constrained by hypotheses I had already built? How well did I do in asking questions that did not lead to an expected answer? All of those things I should reflect on, because a good scientist tries to be objective, not by destroying his subjectivity - an impossible task - but by becoming conscious of what directions his subjectivity is likely to pull him in. Indeed, I might ask, is it problematic that my conclusion was in part determined by the prejudices and beliefs that I brought with me into the analysis? If not, would it be problematic if a scientist doing, say, pharmaceutical research, were guilty of the same thing (that is, expecting or desiring a certain outcome)?

As you may have guessed, a part of opening up the scientific process like this - understanding it as a dynamic and iterative process that need not proceed "in order" and can happily dance around especially in the early stages for a long time - is opening up dialogue. Science, contrary to much modern pedagogy, is actually one of the liberal arts, and the division between science and the humanities is less than helpful. My choice to analyze Van Gogh instead of photosynthesis implies this bias on my part, but I hope that you can see by virtue of my selection that scientific thinking is critical thinking, just as much as literary or artistic analysis, and that science should embrace dialogue.

With that in mind, I want to pose a final question. How could we express this messy, but genuine, version of the scientific process more succinctly, thus making it easier to digest and, hopefully, easier to talk about?

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